Striper lessons

I took Don out for a striper lesson this week. Rather than give you a “Dear Diary” account, I thought I would tell you about some of the striper lessons we covered.

Cast and strip is ultimately limiting. You will catch the aggressive, willing-to-chase fish with that approach. But eventually you will encounter bass that are holding on station, feeding on a particular bait, and cast-and-strip will fail you. Learn the art of presentation. Dead drifts, greased line swings, dangles and mends — all of these will serve you well when the going gets tough. If you want to learn presentation, and you value line control, you need a floating line. Period. Find the line taper and grain weight that’s best suited to your rod, how you cast, and how you want to fish. Hint: it isn’t necessarily what’s printed on the blank. You don’t need to cast far to catch stripers. I taught Don what I call the “zero foot cast,” and by using the current, you can delivery your fly to fish over 100 feet away. When the fish are on something small, droppers are your best friend. Multiple baits mean multiple catching opportunities. And as always, droppers are the fastest way to find out what the fish want. If you want to catch more stripers, learn how to read water. Just like you do with trout. And last but not least, alway scope out a new mark in daylight so you can see what’s going on.

Don, shown working on his greased line swings and dangles, is a keen student of fly fishing. All he needs now is some cooperative stripers!

Small stream report: brookies and mayflies and…bears

So I’m standing in the brook, working out a few kinks in the leader, when I see this large, black blur moving through the forest. My first thought was, “Someone brought their freaking huge dog and now I’m going to have to contend with all kinds of rambunctious behavior.” Then I noticed it was a black bear cub. Great. Where there’s a black bear cub, there’s a mama bear, and the last thing I need right now is a mama bear that thinks I’m a threat to her kids. I calmly lit a cigar — let them smell where I am, and hopefully they hate Nicaraguan tobacco — and began my one-sided calls of “Hey, bear!”

I figured from the way the cub was moving — really fast, past my position, heading up a trail — that he was in more trouble than I was. Everything about his actions said, “Crap, I’m gonna get it, I’m way behind mom!” Just to be sure, I stayed in position for a few minutes to make sure I didn’t see any more Ursas. But I kept that cigar blazing, I kept up my call-and-hopefully-no-response, and I was looking over my shoulder the entire time I was fishing. Of course, I understand that all things being normal, bears generally want less to do with you than you do with them. But it’s always unnerving to see an animal that large in the wild.

To the fishing. This brook was higher than normal, albeit flowing clear, but at this level most of the pools and runs were blown out. I saw caddis and midges and some un-IDed huge mayfly spinner. I fished a dry/dropper, and to my surprise the char only wanted the dry. Even more surprisingly, they ignored almost all of my weighted micro-streamers. I pricked many fish, and most of them were in the 2″-4″ class. I’m content to use a bigger dry for these fish; they never get hooked, so there are are no complications from catch-and-release. I did land a few, and I decided to take a picture of one of them. And here it is.

Please take care when photographing wild fish: always keep your hands wet, keep the fish submerged until you’re ready to shoot, then only expose the fish to air for a few seconds at most.

Farmington River Report 4/27/21: trading numbers for size

Monday’s Hendrickson hatch in the lower end of the Permanent TMA was a solid 8 out of 10. (The pre-hatch bite was slow, and the duration of the duns-on-the-surface feeding frenzy was brief, otherwise I would have graded it higher.) So I headed back yesterday to see what secrets the river would reveal. Crowds continue to be a factor; if you’re looking for solitude within the Permanent TMA, you will be disappointed. I chatted up my new buddies from yesterday, Andy and Bob, who were likewise back for more, and when some water opened up — people do leave — I jumped on it. Conditions were as nice as you could hope for, with a clear flow of 275cfs and hazy sun and far less wind than Monday.

The section I fished was perfect wet fly water: moving at a brisk pace, mottled, multiple current seams. Wet fly continues to be a highly productive method for fishing under the Hendrickson hatch, especially when it appears as though nothing is going on. While many other anglers are lounging on the river bank, or standing mid-stream like statues, I am working the water with a team of three wet flies. Wet fly anglers will always discover that something is afoot subsurface before dry fly anglers, and that was proved again yesterday. Around 1pm, I had an intense flurry of activity for 15 minutes, including hits on four consecutive casts. Then the action slowed.

This 16″ Survivor Strain brown crushed my BH Hendrickson soft-hackle on the mended swing. In heavier current, trout will set the hook if you let them; you feel the hit, wait, and ask “Are you still there?” The answer will always be yes.

Then, just like that, it was over. I added a shot above my middle dropper to see if I could tight line nymph up some trout, but they weren’t having it. (This is something I teach my clients: when you walk into a pool, you simply don’t know what’s been happening. The trout may have had the feed bags on for the previous hour, and now they’re simply just done.) So I got out of the river to warm up a bit. With the pool rested and my legs a little less frozen, I waded back in around 2pm.

Since I was hoping to find the fish that were already looking up, I switched out the bead head on point for a fly I’d never fished before. It was the Old Blue Dun, one of Leisenring’s favorite twelve. I’d always thought it would make a fine Hendrickson, and since to this point I’d seen more olives in the air than Hendricksons, it seemed like a proper why not? moment. It was a good decision, as a rugby ball-shaped survivor strain brown hammered the fly on the dangle.

With superabundance of meat on his flanks, this 16″ Survivor Strain brown gave me a challenging battle in the swift, cool waters of the Farmington River.

On Monday, the Hendrickson duns were on the surface thick by 3pm. That was not the case yesterday; we probably had about two-thirds less mayflies. Still, I brought several trout to net on Hendrickson Usuals and Comparaduns, two patterns I like in choppy water as they provide a good profile when viewed from below. I had to be off the water by 3:30, so reluctantly, I pulled myself away from pleasure and headed off toward responsibility.

Three things striper fly tyers (and anglers) could learn from Gary LaFontaine

As I continue to pore through Gary LaFontaine’s masterwork Caddisflies, I’m reminded of the sheer volume of universal concepts that apply to fly fishing. So, even though he’s talking about fishing for trout that are feeding on caddisflies, LaFontaine could easily be talking about stripers feeding on sand eels or grass shrimp. A true maverick, he isn’t afraid to think or act differently, to challenge conventional wisdom, or conduct experiments to prove his theories. (Listen to the science. You’ve heard that one before) The more you fish for trout and stripers, the more you begin to see patterns and similarities between the species and how you should be fishing for them. Here are three themes in Caddisflies from which I think striper anglers and fly tyers who want to dramatically elevate their game could benefit.

Realism is the least important factor in fly design. I don’t have the actual stat, but I’m comfortable in saying that nine out of ten striper baitfish patterns feature glued on, ultra-realistic eyes. (Other than on these pages, when was the last time you saw a squid fly without big googly eyes?) If realism, from eyes to full-bodied profile to opacity to exact coloring, etc., is so important, how come my baitfish flies (and yours, and everyone else’s) continue to catch stripers long after they’ve literally been ripped to shreds? It’s a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer anyway. It’s because the bass are keying on certain bait or environmental characteristics that serve as bite triggers, and those triggers are still present in the remnants of the fly. LaFontaine knew that making a favorable impression on the fish — by showing them at least one primary feature or action that identified the fly as something that looked like what they were eating — was far more important than rendering a carbon copy.

I get this all the time: “That doesn’t look like a squid.” But Ken AbramesMutable Squid isn’t designed to “look like a squid.” It’s designed to create the illusion of life. I don’t know what stripers think it is, but they’ve eaten this fly enough times for me to know that they think it’s something good to eat.

Energy efficiency is the reason for selective feeding. Fish, especially bigger ones, are essentially lazy. So when they’re glommed onto grass shrimp in a feeding lane, you can engage in the futile activity of ripping and stripping a big fly past them, or deliver what they’re eating to their waiting mouths. This is why there is no one-size-fits-all “go-to” striper fly — and why learning presentation with a floating line is so important. Match the hatch, learn its nuances, make it easy for the stripers to feed, and you’ll catch more bass.

Fish are not intelligent. There is no such thing as an educated striped bass. Fish cannot reason. They are programmed for survival, and these primal forces have nothing to do with fly fishing or why you can’t fool that lunker. The fish is simply doing what’s it’s doing, and it’s up to you to crack the code.

Farmington River Mini-Report 4/21/21: First wet fly fish of the year

I only had 90 minutes to fish, so I chose the lower Farmington because it was closer to my house, and also to where I needed to be at 2pm. Plus, there was that front bearing down on us. Didn’t want to get stuck in that mess, especially after witnessing a foreboding fork of lightning slicing through the sky. After waiting for the dark clouds to disperse, I was on the water a little before noon. The plan was to swing wets and see if there was any Hendrickson action. Conditions weren’t great — 600cfs is a little high on the Farmington for wet fly, so I used a tungsten bead head Pheasant Tail soft hackle on point to sink things a bit. Still, the water I fished was fast and heavy, and if I was interested in numbers, nymphing would have been the way to go. I had a half dozen whacks in the fast water, with no hook sets, before I connected in a deeper slot. The wind was also a factor — forget roll casting for any distance — and I had to be vigilant to keep the rig from tangling. But by the end of the outing, I had three trout to hand, two on the BHSHPT and another, the biggest, on the top dropper, a Squirrel and Ginger. A My Father Le Bijou 1922 Gran Robusto proved to be a fine companion. Speaking of fronts, I can’t believe how much the temperature has dropped.

It always feels good to land the first wet fly trout of the year, even if it is a stocker rainbow. This one treated me to two aerials. The last two were fatter, and took a bit of forceful coaxing to come to net. I didn’t see any Hendricksons or caddis, but then again I only fished until 1:30pm. My wet fly box desperately needs a restocking!

Salmon River Report 4/13-4/14: Reaching the steelhead century mark — and beyond

I’m not in the habit of counting fish. But steelhead, being what they are — well, they’re just different. Trying to catch them is also different. I’ve been through all this with you before: you can do everything right and drop the fish. You can do (most) everything wrong and land the fish. Life isn’t fair, and neither is steelheading. The conditions you’re fishing in can be demanding, if not downright brutal. So when you get a decent flow and warm sunshine and bluebird skies and, most of all, a little luck, you thank the steelhead gods very much and you certainly don’t question any of it. I’d been stuck on steelhead #97 since November — my March trip was a blank — so here I was a month later, hoping something good would happen.

Tuesday April 13. I got to the river around 3pm. My float trip was scheduled for the next day, but I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to fish. I hit a popular mark on the lower end of the river, one I was familiar with. As I was walking down the path, I saw an angler playing a steelhead, so this gave me hope. That was short-lived. For the next two-and-one-half hours, a total of eight anglers on the run hooked zero fish. I had a touch at one point, but my hookset didn’t even produce a head shake. I decided to save my chips for the next day, so I left disappointed, but clinging to the hope that sooner or later my lousy luck had to change.

If you need something spell-checked, you’re on your own.

Wednesday April 14. At first I thought it was the bottom, but it didn’t quite figure. No head shake, and I came away with air, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had to be a steelhead. A dozen casts later, indicator down, hook set, fish on. It was a nice-looking drop-back, holding in some faster water, and now ripping line off the reel. True to form, the fish stopped at the bottom of the pool. I regained line, then another run and some aerials, too. Line regained, process repeated, and now this fish is whipped. Reel cranking, cork upstream, rod bent, steelhead just about 20 feet from the boat, Jim with the net ready. Here comes number 98. Doink! There goes number 98. This is the type of loss that vexes me no end. I had a good hookset, and I played this fish no differently that the last 50 I’ve landed. A few four-letter words provided only a moderate salve to this grievous wound. Is this how today is going to be?

An hour or so later, we bagged number 98. This relieved some of the pressure, even more so after 99, pictured here, went into the hoop. Now I felt like this was really going to happen. And if it didn’t, at least I’d made a significant dent — two steelhead was twice the number I’d landed in my last four days. The conditions were pretty darned good: water temps in the upper 40s, a little color to the water, flow 350cfs, and, best of all, a warm sunny day to help me forget that day in March when I was flicking ice out my guides for eight hours.
Then, suddenly, it was over. I landed my 100th steelhead. Cue Howie Rose saying, “Put it in the books!” Not the prettiest specimen, but beautiful and perfect in his own way. What an eventful journey. I’d like to thank everyone who encouraged me, shared water, helped wrangle and land or net a steelhead, and especially my guide James Kirtland who has provided me with so many pro tips over the years. I’ve learned so much from him.
Jim’s ClackaCraft was a great choice for low water. Jim’s a skilled oarsman, not to mention a pro with a landing net. This also seems like the appropriate time to give a shout out to Ken Abrames. Ken’s Salmo Saxatillis rod, taking a break after doing yeoman’s work, is a truly exceptional steelhead rod.
The final tally for the day was five-for-nine. We also landed four steelhead smolt and a brown trout. We saved the best steelhead for last, this pug-nosed double-digit-pounds hen we nymphed up fishing western style. To revisit the “steelheading isn’t fair” theme: I had a lousy hookset, I mishandled my line, the run was laden with submerged logs and I still landed her. I’ll take all the luck I can get! And so, dear reader, if you’re counting along, this is number 102. Only 98 more to get to 200.

Reaching the century mark: Steelhead #100

Finally, after so many disappointing outings, I hooked and landed my 100th steelhead. Not the prettiest fish given the time of year, but beautiful and perfect in his own way. It was an eventful day — full report to come next week. In the meantime, here’s a picture worth a hundred words.

Striper report 4/11/21: The walk of shame

This one’s going to be brief, folks, because I have nothing good to report. Well, that’s not entirely true. I got to meet up with old striper partner-in-crime Bob. We each enjoyed a cigar on the walk out. And I got to shake some of the rust off my two-handed casting. Beyond that, it was cold, the wind was blasting out of the east at 15mph (with higher gusts), it rained most of the time we fished, seaweed and grassy detritus was an issue, and neither of us got a single touch. I saw one striper caught by a spin angler. I talked to another fly angler in the parking lot who said he caught two small fish, and that it had been fairly slow thus far. I wish I could tell tales of the Bass-O-Matic, but that will have to wait for another day.

Dr. Griswold performs the walk of the skunked. I was right there with him, just out of camera range.

Farmington River Report 4/9/21: Nature (quickly) finds a way

Just a quick two-hour session on the lower River last Friday. The sun was shining, the air was warm, the water was low and crystal clear, and there was a strong caddis (size 16-18) hatch. I fished three marks and found acton in only one. I purposely stayed away from areas that I knew had been stocked as I wanted to try to find the Salmo that had made it through the winter. I tried several techniques, each to match the conditions and marks I was fishing: tight/long line micro jig streamer, tight line drop shot nymphing, and then indicator nymphing.

Funny thing! I had just landed my first fish, a tiger of a wild brown, when lo and behold, Ye Olde Stocking Truck showed up. What I found fascinating — and I’ve witnessed this before — was that within minutes, the fresh fish were porpoising and snapping at caddis emergers in a back eddy. It doesn’t take long for them to discover where their next meal is coming from. It’s genetic programming at its finest.

Love these holdover/wild fish. They just refuse to come to net without a furious argument. This guy fought way above his weight class.

Reminder: ASMFC Striped Bass Amendment 7 PID comments due Friday, April 9

If you care about building a sustainable striped bass fishery, please take a few minutes to send your comments. Here’s the link to last week’s post that gives you everything you need to know about the ASGA’s position/plan, and how to submit a comment. Thank you.